Just as the guitar of the credit theme started to strum in full power, I abruptly silenced it with a click over the pause button. Like it happened at the end of each of the last few episodes, I could not immediately start the next episode, as is Netflix binge-watching tradition. First, I had to cool down the blood boiling under my skin. The series I was watching: “Making a Murderer”.
State and Media vs. Steven A. Avery
The documentary series, which premiered last December, follows the story of Wisconsinite Steven Avery, who was wrongfully convicted for sexual assault and served 18 years in prison before being exonerated thanks to DNA evidence in 2003. Two years later, as he was preparing to file a lawsuit against the county for taking his 20s and 30s away, he was arrested for allegedly murdering a local photographer Teresa Halbach. The series covers his and his nephew Brendan Dassey’s arrest, prosecution and conviction.
Just last month, Dassey had his conviction overturned after a federal judge declared that his confession, the only significant evidence against him, was coerced during his interrogation by the police. The show highlights this and other blemishes surrounding both Avery’s and Dassey’s trials; it uncovers the flaws in the US judicial system and it leaves the viewer questioning: was Avery wrongfully convicted again? Although I still cannot clearly decide whether Avery actually did or did not murder Teresa Halbach, I certainly learnt one thing from the 10 episodes: media controls justice.
In the case of jury trials, as it was with Avery and Dassey, the media serves as blind Lady Justice’s guide dog. This would be totally fine if the media outlets were trained and educated. However, as it usually is the case, the media is not and, like any other stray, does whatever it pleases. A jury trial, unlike a bench trial, involves both a judge and a group of members of the community called the jury, which makes the final verdict. In most circumstances, a jury trial is favored over a bench trial due to the fact that the verdict is not made by a single person and one side can sway the jury’s emotions for an advantageous ruling. It’s the latter advantage, however, that can undermine a whole trial by rendering it useless months or years before it even starts. This is because the media can narrate a story that will undoubtedly have an influence on the jury, even before the members are selected.
“Making a Murderer” portrayed the magnitude of the problem. Having been arrested on the November of 2005, Steven Avery did not stand trial until March of 2007. During that period of almost a year and a half, the media had narrated gruesome and explicit details, whether true or false, about the alleged assault and murder. They broadcasted interviews with Halbach’s grieving family whose members constantly accused and demonized Avery. There is no doubt that it would have been almost impossible to acquire an unbiased jury after being fed that story for months through mainstream media. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states “innocent until proven guilty”, but with the reach and quantity of content churned out by media in the modern age, there may no longer be the need to prove anything.
Korea’s system for jury trials is in its infancy, only starting trials in 2008. Considering the outreach of media in Korea, where even middle-aged people carry around smartphones, we must be wary and understand its limitations. We need to have a system where media is trained to guide, not to stray.